All heart: Children's author loves her work

"To live as a children's author, you have to do multiple things," Alice Leonhardt says, adding "unless you make it big. Unless you're J.K. Rowling in your castle."

Clearly it's not as easy as the author of the popular Harry Potter stories makes it look. Even with more than 60 books under her belt, contracts with Random House and Simon and Schuster, an Edgar Allen Poe Award nomination, and titles on the New York Times bestseller list, Leonhardt is quick to point out that, while her family may have horses, her home north of Staunton is not a horse farm. And to make ends meet, she teaches part-time at Blue Ridge Community College.

Still, she's not about to give up.

"I literally cannot explain where my determination and perseverance came from," Leonhardt confesses.

Leonhardt grew up in Baltimore and started writing stories in second grade. In 1983, when she sold her first short story to Highlights magazine for children, she thought she'd finally made the big time.

Alas. "They never bought another thing from me," she sighs.

Her first book was published in 1985, a work-for-hire job for which she was paid a one-time flat fee that led to writing countless Nancy Drew mysteries and, later, Mary-Kate and Ashley books. She also writes educational books and testing materials, and is the author of a 13-book series of young adult novels about thoroughbred horses.

Still, this former special education teacher and mother of two who declines to give her age says she's tired of doing work-for-hire. Among her publications are five books that are entirely her own creations, and this is the place she now wants to concentrate her creative energies.

Using the nom de plume Alison Hart– to distinguish these books from her other work and to give kids an easier name to remember– Leonhardt writes mysteries, historical fiction, and real-life police stories. Her tales often reflect her own passion for horses, and feature strong female characters who tackle not only crime, but social issues as well.

In her latest book, for example, an American Girl History Mystery called Danger at the Wild West Show, Rose is an aspiring Annie Oakley-style trick-rider who defies 19th century feminine norms to solve the crime, clear her brother's name, and fight discrimination against Native Americans.

Melissa Techman, the librarian at Broadus Wood Elementary School who came to Leonhardt's book signing at Barnes & Noble last week just to meet her, says Alison Hart's books are always checked out at her library. "She's really got a feel for what kids love," Techman says.

With another book due out this fall and a contract for a three-book series of historical mysteries set during the Civil War, Hart... er Leonhardt... is hoping she's finally on her way to the big time.